We bid a reluctant but truly fond farewell today to Michael Collins. The NASA astronaut passed away at the age of 90 on April 28, 2021. Collins flew on the historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969, and also on Gemini 10 in 1966.
As Command Module Pilot, Collins was the lone member of the Apollo 11 crew who remained in orbit while his fellow astronauts became the first to land and walk on the Moon. But his endearing nature means he will be most remembered for his wit and humor, his passion and humbleness, his unflappable demeanor, his thoughtful contemplations, and the inspiring words he left behind as a writer of several books.
Collins always felt he was one of the luckiest people to ever live. “Usually, you find yourself either too young or too old to do what you really want,” he said in an interview he did with himself in 2009, “but consider: Neil Armstrong was born in 1930, Buzz Aldrin 1930, and Mike Collins 1930. We came along at exactly the right time. We survived hazardous careers and we were successful in them. But in my own case at least, it was 10 percent shrewd planning and 90 percent blind luck. Put LUCKY on my tombstone.”
Collins passed away after a battle with cancer, according to statement issued by his family:
“We regret to share that our beloved father and grandfather passed away today after a valiant battle with cancer. He spent his final days peacefully, with his family by his side. Mike always faced the challenges of life with grace and humility, and faced this, his final challenge, in the same way. We will miss him terribly. Yet we also know how lucky Mike felt to have lived the life he did. We will honor his wish for us to celebrate, not mourn, that life. Please join us in fondly and joyfully remember his sharp wit, his quiet sense of purpose, his wise perspective gained both from looking back at Earth from the vantage of space and gazing across calm waters from the deck of his fishing boat.”
NASA remembered Collins as a “true pioneer and lifelong advocate for exploration,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk in a statement, and a “a tireless promoter of space…. There is no doubt he inspired a new generation of scientists, engineers, test pilots, and astronauts.”
During the Apollo 11 flight, Collins was described as the “loneliest man in history” as he flew by himself, orbiting to the far side of the Moon, cut off even from radio communications with Earth. But he said he felt very much a part of the mission the entire time.
“I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude,” he said. “It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”
Collins was an Air Force pilot before being chosen as an astronaut in 1963. He never flew again after Apollo 11, but he didn’t lament his lack of chance to walk on the lunar surface.
“As an astronaut I always thought I had the best job in the world and I still think that,” he said, “but for me when it was over, it was over.”
But still, he said he would look up and see the Moon, and think, “‘Oh my God! I’ve been there!’ I was up there, you see. Kind of takes me by surprise despite all these years.”
Collins left NASA in 1970 and joined the State Department, and then became director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. He also began writing about his experiences. “Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys” was a best seller and is often considered one of the best astronaut autobiographies.
He also wrote “Flying to the Moon and Other Strange Places (1976) a children’s book on his experiences, “Liftoff: The Story of America’s Adventure in Space,” (1988) a history of the American space program, “Mission to Mars,” (1990), a non-fiction book on human spaceflight to Mars. Collins was also an artist, painting watercolor landscapes.
In addition to considering himself lucky, Collins never missed an opportunity to express his gratitude for the hundreds of thousands of people who worked during the early days of the US space program, who ultimately made it possible to send astronauts to the Moon.
“This trip of ours to the Moon may have looked, to you, simple or easy,” he said in a transmission to Mission Control on the trip back to Earth from the Moon in 1969.” I’d like to assure you that has not been the case…. This operation is somewhat like the periscope of a submarine. All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all those, I would like to say, thank you very much.”
Personally, I have always been inspired by Mike Collins and feel we have now lost a true national treasure. A few years ago, I wrote a song about him, called “Who Flies the Ship When Mike Collins Goes to Sleep.” You can listen to it here. The song is a retrospective, if not whimsical look at the Apollo 11 mission through the eyes of the young girl I was in 1969, sitting in front of the television set, watching history.